“Looking back upon the place, it may have been a ghetto, but it was a golden ghetto, a place of brotherhood and opportunity and wonder. Before Gernsback, there were science fiction stories. After Gernsback, there was a science fiction genre.”
The turn of the twentieth century saw an outburst of inventions that would transform ordinary life. But for awhile, the automobile was mostly a plaything of the urban rich, motion pictures were as yet sporadically seen (the first Nickelodeon devoted exclusively to movies opened in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905) and airplanes were an infrequent curiosity.
But radio sets were a miracle that individuals could put together and own. Years before there was a single commercial broadcast station (again in Pittsburgh, in 1920) there were thousands of radio enthusiasts in the United States alone, sending and receiving radio signals.
One of them was a European immigrant with the ungainly name of Hugo Gernsback. His enthusiasm for new technologies began when as a boy in Luxembourg he wired his family home for electricity. He was also fascinated with American culture, particularly Wild West stories. After studying electrical engineering at a German university, he emigrated to the United States in 1904.
These publications promoted not only radio but an experimental technology combining picture with sound that Gernsback dubbed “television.” Among his fervent readers were Marconi, Edison, Tesla, rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, and the unsung genius of television, Philo T. Farnsworth, as well as the RCA chief who pirated Farnsworth’s inventions to build a television empire, David Sarnoff.
Other such magazines emerged in the 1930s, printed on cheaper pulp paper to keep them inexpensive. (Gernsback’s penchant for paying writers poorly or not at all also contributed.) A genre was born, which after a false start or two, Gernsback named “science fiction.”
The earliest pulp stories tended to emphasize technologies at the expense of story, becoming known as “gadget fiction.” Still, new technologies naturally became an important topic in science fiction, especially as rocketry advanced and rockets to space became a foreseeable possibility. Many of the early 20th century pioneers of rocketry were inspired by science fiction (Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsy and German Hermann Oberth by Jules Verne, American Robert Goddard by H.G. Wells) and some wrote their own science fiction stories.
Other space technologies were envisioned first by fiction writers. Artificial space satellites were first proposed in novels as early as 1869 (Edward Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon) and an Austrian engineer and a German science fiction writer each described a working space station in 1928.
This relationship remained strong through the golden age of the pulps in the 30s and 40s, when new names were established as science fiction masters. Several of the more prominent writers had science backgrounds: E.E. “Doc” Smith, author of the early Skylark series, had degrees in chemistry and physics, Isaac Asimov in biochemistry and Arthur C. Clarke in physics and mathematics.
The worlds of science fiction and science—or at least technology—sometimes overlapped more directly. Robert Heinlein, an engineer with graduate work in math and physics and a prominent science fiction author, helped design a high-altitude pressure suit for the U.S. Navy, which he based on the description of a space suit he read in a 1931 pulp story by Edmond Hamilton. Heinlein’s work on the suit was continued by another science fiction writer (and aeronautical engineer), L. Sprague de Camp.
Although some science fiction stories took place in the historical present or past, most were set in a future. Inventing futures became a more serious business in 1938 when John W. Campell became editor of the magazine Astounding. According to Lester del Rey, “He wanted them [his writers] to live in their futures. And he wanted those futures to be livable.”
The writers responded by becoming “future-oriented, with the sense that the present was not the permanent center of everything: to them, the future was a real place. It was three-dimensional.”
To make these futures “real,” Campbell urged his writers to imagine the social implications of new technologies. He urged them to question their assumptions based on the present or even prior science fiction. “’Yes, but’ was one of his favorite openings to a discussion,” del Rey recalls.
Campbell, according to del Rey, “had no desire to ‘bring science fiction into the mainstream. But he was totally serious about the fact that science fiction was the only fiction that dealt fully with modern reality.”
dreamed up a “strange visitor from another planet” who first appeared in Action Comics in 1938. Superman was the first dramatic character in a comic book and the first superhero—beginning a genre that dominates science fiction storytelling in big budget movies during the first decades of the 21st century.
From the beginning, the science fiction pulps inspired a unique readership. Pulps got so many unsolicited and thoughtful letters from readers that letters sections became regular and important features. Some of the most avid letter writers became story writers.
|Writer, editor, impressario Forrest|
Ackerman in costume from 1936 film
Things to Come, at WorldCom 1 in 1939.
The first World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York in 1939, a few miles away from the World’s Fair and its three-dimensional future that fans could walk around in. A pulp editor told an audience, “I didn’t think you fans could be so damn sincere.”
Yet veteran science fiction writer and editor Lester del Rey argued that the pulps and the genre characteristics were crucial to science fiction’s development. Not only did the magazines foster friendships and an international network of associations in a “genuine subculture” with its own beliefs and traditions, but “to some extent, science fiction has developed its own ethics and values.”
Another factor created critical and audience distance. With the rise of what came to be called “sociological science fiction” in the pulps, stories began to examine possible consequences of technology, as well as critiquing society more generally. As U.S. society became more conformist, science fiction could be annoyingly subversive.
sequence of novels for young readers was among the most successful. Another was the Winston Science Fiction Series, featuring a number of authors including Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond F. Jones, Poul Anderson, Ben Bova and Lester del Rey.
Those books led to a growing market for science fiction novels, especially in paperback, and some became best-sellers. But the taint of the genre remained, so that well into the 21st century, science fiction works and writers, and even actors and everyone outside the effects and costume departments of science fiction films and television, almost never got the big prestige prizes.
A telling paradox of the genre might be that while science fiction doesn’t deal as overtly with personal or emotional matters as more accepted fictions, it evokes strong emotion in readers. But these tales inspire feelings that mainstream stories don’t stir as powerfully, such as wonder, amazement and a sense of possibility.
|The inside cover illustration of all the Winston SF novels--For|
young readers like me who read library copies without dust
jackets, this was the memorable image.
In the 1960s the aging writer Henry Miller recalled his youth poring over Rider Haggard's tales in a secret hillside cave with his blood brothers. "...these books were part of our Spartan discipline, our spiritual training…..Our grown-up boys, the scientists, prate about the imminent conquest of the moon; our children have already voyaged far beyond the moon. They are ready, at a moment's notice, to take off for Vega—and beyond. They beg our supposedly superior intellects to furnish them with a new cosmogony and a new cosmology. They have grown intolerant of our naïve, limited, antiquated theories of the universe."
“Something so absurd as a boyhood book momentarily captures the mind and never quite releases it,” a character muses in a novel by Jim Harrison. But these books speak not only to boys.
Young Margaret Atwood hid from homework in the basement by reading Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells in old volumes forgotten by her father.
“Wells’ fictions were the first books I read,” proclaimed the erudite scholar and writer Jose Luis Borges. “Perhaps they will be the last.”
They were responding to the age-old fascination of stories. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle," Vladimir Nabokov remarked. "That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science."
That little shiver—of hope or of horror—was leading to the future.
All of which prompts (but does not beg) the question: What is science fiction? And what is its role in exploring the soul of the future?
To be continued...Prior posts in the series can be accessed by clicking on the Soul of the Future label below.